Water on Mars

Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock you’ve no doubt seen the announcement by NASA today that water has been discovered on Mars (sort of, but we’ll get to that in a moment). After a day of sensational hype created from NASA’s pre-warning of an important press release, this was making headlines from the word go, with everyone speculating on the topic of discussion. The discovery of aliens, mysterious artefacts and water on Mars were all proposed.

Here is one of the images which helped make the discovery. Images of the same part of Mars’ surface at different times shows these streaks appearing between shots, indicating an active landscape. The dark streaks are on the order of 5 metres wide, often narrower, were first discovered over a decade ago, and have been called ‘recurring slope lineae’. There were numerous proposed causes for these, including water, but also avalanches or grains of material rolling down slopes.

Once the CHRISM spectrometer was applied to these streaks, the spectral signature of the features could be analysed, revealing their composition. Hydrated salts were found on every streak, but were strikingly absent from the surrounding surface. Water turns to liquid on Mars’ surface at 0 degrees Celsius, just as it does on Earth, but water with a high concentration of salts will melt at much lower temperatures (try this at home with some table salt!). The flows appear when temperatures rise over -23 degrees Celcius, which is reached during the warm season in parts of Mars.

Researchers are working on determining where this water has come from. Possible theories include porous rocks under the surface and saline aquifers existing in some areas below the surface in areas. Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist, prefers the theory that the salts exist on the surface of Mars, and absorb water from the atmosphere until they reach a point where they have enough liquid to flow downhill, a process known as deliquescence. To me this would indicate that the surface of Mars where these features form would be laden in salts, but as mentioned earlier the spectral imagery does not seem to support this theory.

So why sort of? To be precise, we haven’t directly detected water flowing on Mars, only signs (however promising) that point towards water flow. But we must always be cautious and consider other processes that may create the same results (or even processes we have never encountered before!).

“Does this mean life on Mars?” everyone cries. The presence of liquid water (however transient in this case) is a good sign for the existence of life. Dr Grunsfeld of NASA has stated that “If I were a microbe on Mars, I would probably not live near one of these [sites]”. He suggests that underneath a freshwater glacier, such as those suspected in the north and south, would yield more ideal conditions for life.

In any case, these are certainly exciting times for Mars exploration. Of course, a ground-truthing experiment (physically checking these sites, drilling and collecting samples) would prove this theory right or wrong. Here’s to hoping we can get a geologist to these sites soon! If anyone asks, pick me.

How to make a comet

Hey space lovers! I’ve recently signed up to be a member of The Planetary Society and if you should too if you aren’t already. Not only do you get an excellent t-shirt (see below) and a quarterly issue of The Planetary Report magazine, you are funding space advocacy and adding your name to an important body that will promote space exploration.


Have you ever wondered why comet 67P looks the way it does? It’s a strange shape and looks a little like 2 bodies that have been fused together, but to the researcher’s surprise, the cometary activity appears to originate in the neck. Why? Rapid temperature change in the neck, causing cracks and inducing volatile loss. Check out Emily Lakdawalla’s blog entry for the full spiel!

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image from wikipedia.org
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image from wikipedia.org.

Humans to Mars – For and against

Today I was reading an article by Frank Stratford, CEO and founder of MarsDrive, about the benefits of going to Mars. I was nodding my head in agreement as I usually do, but after looking at the comments, one by Heinrich Monroe particularly threw me. It’s a long one, so I’ve picked out the key points (in my opinion).

Oh, we’re going to get spinoffs from it? Like “from medical technology to food and water to new materials, safety technologies, and so much more”? … You know, if we spend $100B on just about any massive technological and engineering goal, spinoffs like that… will fall out as well. The question is whether those spinoffs were really worth $100B, and whether we couldn’t have gotten more value on them with smarter investment.” – Heinrich Monroe

When I talk about the value of having space science programs, in addition to the intrinsic value of advancing scientific understanding, I often refer to the unforeseen advances in technology that come as a result. For example, we probably wouldn’t have instant global communications via satellite feed, let alone the host of material science, medical and software advances that have resulted from space programs. But the comments made by Heinrich did make me wonder whether we could have achieved these better with direct, targeted programs.

Image taken from www.reddit.com. Unfortunately I'm unable to credit the original poster.
Image taken from www.reddit.com. Unfortunately I’m unable to credit the original poster.

As Donald Rumsfeld has said, there are known knowns, known unknowns and and unknown unknowns. We don’t even know about some of the discoveries to be made working on space science and their implications to every day life until we make the discovery. However, one could perhaps say the same about a targeted research program. It’s certainly a tricky one to answer, although I will say this.

There is a lot of money being used for things that I disagree with ethically, and that isn’t being used for programs such as advancing medical science. By advocating for more space science funding, I’m not convinced that this would greatly cannibalise funding going towards these other programs. It’s not a choice between one or the other.

Having said that, I would be very interested to see a study that estimates the value of space science research compared to direct research in other fields. This is presumably very difficult, as it’s hard to put a number on the value of science development (would discovering life on Mars have intrinsic value?), but this shouldn’t stop people from trying. I’m sure something like this exists, but given my experience in determining the effectiveness of charities, I wouldn’t be that surprised if it didn’t. One example is the fact that for every dollar invested in NASA, there has been a $7-14 return on investment. If you are aware of any general studies of this nature, feel free to put a link in the comments below.

I may be biased – I am a space science researcher after all!

Here is a link to a neat infographic that summarises the spin-off benefits of NASA technology and funding.